Wild Words: Kirsteen Bell

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When the skies are clear now, their blue is edged with ice, and the hills have gathered their first snow.

The hidden nuts will have their chance.

Finally, the acorns are turning from bright green to warm brown. I’ve been stalking the fallen fruit from the oak, raking my fingers through wet leaves to gather little harvests that are lunch for our pigs.

Each find is immensely satisfying, even more so when I reach for one and discover ten more rolled into a hollow. My eyes snag on the gleam of an acorns’ soft white end, like the rear-end of a roe glimpsed through autumn bracken, or the tail-feathers of a jay as it scoots between the trees.

The jays come for the same harvest. Sometimes their flight is preceded by a shriek, but more often they are quiet as they go about their business. If the sun is out though, it catches their snowy undersides, or a bobbing branch might give away their landing spot, revealing a rose-brown breast and mantle, a bright blue edge.

The clusters of acorns I uncover – tucked beneath tussocks of grass, nestled in the moss of the stone wall, or simply concealed by leaves – are potentially jay caches. Hidden locations are stowed in their memories for months – stowed so well that they can dig through thick layers of snow to retrieve them.

From the house, I watch three jays dropping out of the oak to the ground of the old pigpen, nosing through the fallen leaves. One bird flurries up to sit briefly on the fence, white gullet bulging with its haul. It scans the surroundings before flying into the birchwood, gullet empty on return.

As a well-fed jay will often leave a hoard untouched, it can be the trees who benefit. A new generation of oaks might be given a head-start by an abandoned store. Left to grow, some of these green shoots will become a spring meal for a gestating roe deer. I wonder briefly who or what I might deprive by gathering bucketfuls of these acorns. I console myself that this is just one of many fruiting oaks, on just one of the many tree-lined crofts that the jays and deer will frequent.

The pigs and I will collect a fraction of the acorns within our boundaries; the jays will not return to all their successful stashes; the nuts still hidden will have their chance.